Arsenic is an element that exists naturally in the Earth’s crust. Small amounts of arsenic are found in some rock, soil, water, and air. When arsenic combines with other chemical elements, it creates compounds, or chemical mixtures. When people come in contact with arsenic in the environment, it is often with compounds.

Arsenic spreads through the environment naturally through soil erosion (when soil is washed away by water) or storm water runoff (when water from rain or melted snow runs over the ground). Arsenic can be found in different forms — as pure arsenic, or combined with other elements to form compounds.

High levels of arsenic can also build up as a result of human activities, such as mining, farming, and other industries. This can be dangerous, because arsenic is poisonous to people and can cause serious health effects.

How is arsenic used?

Arsenic is sometimes used in:

  • Pesticides (chemicals that kill pests)
  • Products used in making glass
  • Wood preservatives (products that help keep wood in good condition)

Arsenic may be used in the production of certain kinds of glass. It’s also added to heavy metals to make them stronger, creating compounds called alloys.

How can people be exposed to arsenic?

People can be exposed to (come in contact with) arsenic when it gets into food, water, and air. Here’s the good news: it’s very unlikely that you’ll be exposed to dangerous levels unless your job involves regular contact with arsenic (for example, if you work with certain metals or wood).

How can arsenic affect my health?

Symptoms of arsenic exposure can vary depending on:

  • How arsenic gets into your body
  • How much arsenic gets into to your body
  • How long you’re exposed to arsenic

Breathing in high levels of arsenic can cause a sore throat and irritation of the lungs. Repeated exposure to arsenic over time can damage many organs, including the kidneys, stomach, and liver. It can also cause different kinds of cancer. Swallowing or breathing in a lot of arsenic may even cause death.

Exposure to low levels of arsenic can cause:

  • Damage to the heart and blood
  • Damage to the nervous system
  • Nausea and vomiting (feeling sick and throwing up)
  • Skin problems, such as warts, redness, and swelling

Arsenic may hurt an unborn baby if a woman is exposed while she’s pregnant.

Find out more about the water you and your family use in your home for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and laundry at Indoor Water.

Some content courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

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You may have seen forensic scientists on TV take hair, nail, and blood samples to help solve murder cases. Sometimes, they’re looking for poison — and it could be arsenic.
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Protecting children's health is a vital public health goal. Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of environmental contaminants. For more information, see Children's Health.
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If you’re worried your health has been affected by arsenic, talk with your doctor at your next checkup. If you think someone has arsenic poisoning, call the Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222 right away.